Robert Maplethorpe’s Iconic Image of Patti Smith

Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith receives the National Book Award tonight for Just Kids, the memoir of her friendship with photographer Robert Maplethorpe. He took the photo of Smith on the cover of Horses, the debut album that made her the Queen of Punk in 1975. She told the story of how this iconic image was made in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:

PATTI SMITH: Well, it’s very classic photograph by Robert, very simple. I’m standing against a white wall with a triangular shadow and dressed in the clothes typical of myself then in just an old white shirt - a clean, old white shirt. Sort of a black ribbon that symbolizes a tie or a cravat; black pants; jacket slung over my shoulder, looking directly at Robert. It has a little bit of Baudelaire, little bit of Catholic boy, a little bit of Frank Sinatra and a lot of Robert.

TERRY GROSS: What impact do you think that photo had on how people perceived you?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I, you know, I don’t know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: I know people really liked it. I know the record company didn’t. And…

GROSS: They didn’t? That’s such a great photo. Why didn’t the record company like it?

Ms. SMITH: Because my hair was messy. Because, you know, it just it was a little incomprehensible to them at the time. But I fought for it and they did try to airbrush my hair, but I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: …made sure that was fixed. People were very upset, constantly, about my appearance when I was young. I don’t know what it was. You know, they just, it was very hard for them to factor. But I’ve always had that problem. Even as a child, you know, I used to go the beach when I was a little kid and just want to wear my dungarees and my flannel shirt and the whole time people would be, why are you wearing that? Why don’t you get a bathing suit? You know, why, it’s like leave me alone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: It’s just like, I’m not bothering you. Why are you worried about, you know, what I look like? You know, it’s just I’m not trying to bother anybody. But people loved the photograph. The people on the streets loved the photograph, and it gave Robert some instant attention. I think it was his, you know, the - where he - it really helped, you know, launch his work into the public consciousness. And so we were both very happy about that. And the funniest thing, and sort of the sweetest thing, was when I started performing after the record came out, I would go to clubs anywhere - it could be Denmark, it could be in Youngstown, Ohio - and I would come on stage and at least half of the kids had white shirts and black ties on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: It was kind of cool. We all had suddenly turned Catholic. [Transcript]

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